I've been a Christian all of my life. My parents taught me that God loves everyone equally and that all people should be treated with dignity and respect. I recently attended a camp meeting where my wife and I witnessed the power of God in ways I've never seen before: shaking, laughing, falling over, men and women crying out to God in repentance. Revivals like these have been happening a lot these days. It's like the book of Acts all over again. My faith has been revived like never before. But now I'm faced with a problem: I can't figure out what to do with my slaves.
Christians from the North have been saying some crazy things. They say that slavery goes against the will of God. They say that owning another human being is immoral. They say that we should read the scriptures through the lens of the redemptive work of Christ, and that the sum of the law is to love God and to love your neighbor.They say that the Christian life is about serving God in the newness of the Spirit, not in the oldness of the letter (Romans 7:6), because the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6).
I'll admit. These sound like good ideas. I'd love to accept them, but I have a problem with the way they're treating the scriptures. It looks to me like they're disregarding the vast majority of what the Bible has to say about the subject. They're picking and choosing which parts of the Bible they want to believe. I love God. I love people. I want all people to have a relationship with Christ like I have. But twisting the Word of God to make it fit with the every-shifting attitudes of society? That's where I have to draw the line, because the Word of God is clear on this matter: Owning another human being is not immoral.
Some of them say that the Exodus story reveals God's heart to free the oppressed, but I think that's a little dishonest. The Exodus story doesn't show that God is against all slavery, just certain people being enslaved. They willfully disregard the fact that once God freed the children of Israel from Egypt, he allowed them to have slaves. Hebrew men were allowed to sell their daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7). They were also allowed to take female captives of war as slaves -- and to have sex with them (Numbers 31:7-18, Judges 21:10-24, Deuteronomy 20:10-14, II Samuel 5:13). The Israelites were told by God to treat foreign slaves like property, and to pass them on as a permanent inheritance to their children (Leviticus 25:44-46) but Hebrew slaves were supposed to be set free on the seventh year (Exodus 21:2-6). Clearly God thinks about slavery differently according to the racial background of the individual. Slavery is even mentioned in two of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:10, 17), which last time I checked is God's universal moral law for all people of all time.
I've heard some Christians say that Christ came and changed all that, so it's not exactly helpful to get our information from the Old Testament. I agree, but only to an extent. he truth is that the New Testament changes the way that slaves should be treated, but it doesn't condemn the institution of slavery. For example, in the Old Testament, the children of Israel were allowed to beat their slaves, because, as the text says, slaves are property (Exodus 21:20-21). Clearly, the beating part is no longer valid, since the apostle Paul admonishes masters to treat their slaves kindly (Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 4:1) but that doesn't change the fact that God has ordained some to be masters and some to be slaves (Colossians 3:22-24, Ephesians 6:5-8). I treat my slaves just great. I don't threaten them or beat them. I treat them like my own children. I've even led several of my slaves to Christ, and do Bible studies with them.
Their favorite verse, Galatians 3:28 says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus", but Paul was talking about spiritual unity in Christ, not about earthly distinctions. Jews are still Jews. Greeks are still Greeks. Men are still men. Women are still women. Free men are still free men. And slaves are still slaves. To say anything more is reading something into the text that isn't there.
They say that Jesus said that he came to "set at liberty those who are oppressed" (Luke 4:18), but Jesus was talking about saving us from the spiritual oppression of sin and death. He wasn't talking about physical slavery. How do I know this? Because the Bible says, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). This means that the Bible doesn't contradict itself. Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, said that slaves are supposed to obey their masters as unto the Lord. He also said that if a slave can be free, he should use it, but if he becomes a Christian while being a slave, he shouldn't be concerned about it (I Corinthians 7:21). Clearly this means that it's up to the master to free the slave, not the other way around. Slaves that declare their freedom without their masters' approval are in clear violation of the Word of God. When Onesimus ran from his master Philemon, Paul wrote Philemon to see if he would take him back. It's not like Onesimus quit or resigned his position in Philemon's household. That would be one thing. Clearly Onesimus wasn't Philemon's employee. He was his slave.
So here I am. Stuck with a dilemma. People say that I'm using the Bible to justify my prejudices, but I think that's unfair. I don't hate slaves. I love them. I want to see as many of them come to Christ as possible. That's why I treat my slaves with kindness and respect, as every other slave owner should. As much as I'd love to declare slavery immoral, I think that honoring the plain teachings of scripture is more important. God's Word is infallible. I'm not. To have any other opinion other than what God has clearly stated in God's Word is to put myself in the place of God. I'm not ready to do that.
Still, the issue bothers me. I've seen children separated from their parents. I've looked into the eyes of their mothers and fathers. My heart tells me that slavery is wrong, that owning another human being is immoral. But my head tells me that I shouldn't go beyond the plain teachings of scripture. My conscience is conflicting with my faith. I have to choose between my head and my heart.
Which one should I choose?
[This blog post is part two of another post from last week. Look for part three next week.]
Aaron D. Taylor is the author of Alone with A Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War. To learn more about Aaron's ministry, go to www.aarondtaylor.com. To follow Aaron on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/aarondtaylor. Aaron can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.